Friday, July 14, 2006

Mike Brown, the Planet Hunter

The surname “Brown” is one of the most common in America. And “Michael” is one of the most common names for men. So it’s no surprise that there are a lot of “Michael Browns” out there.

Most of them live in somewhat obscurity. But simple statistics would indicate that a few of them would achieve fame. Wikipedia lists 25 different men named Michael Brown. The list includes politicians, athletes, musicians, and artists.

Two of them are scientists. And one is an astronomer. And Michael E. Brown the astronomer is the subject of today’s article.

Mike Brown discovered what may turn out to be our tenth planet. Or our twelfth, depending on how you count them. And perhaps many more.

Mr. Brown is a voracious planet hunter. He’s an associate professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and he spends a lot of his time peering at the heavens through Caltech’s telescopes in search of planets. In the last five years, he and his associates have been responsible for discovering no fewer than 10 new bodies of rock and ice hurling around our sun and eligible to be considered planets.

Three years ago, he discovered Sedna. Careful measurements later determined that Sedna was almost as large as Pluto. That news set the astronomical world on its ear.

Once astronomers started looking in earnest for new planets, our time-honored definition of planets started crumbling. It fell completely apart last year with the announcement of the discovery (by Brown and his team) of a new heavenly body, tentatively named. Xena. When the orbit and size of Xena were carefully plotted, yep, Xena is actually larger than Pluto.

Brown’s wife proved that a prophet is without honor in his own city. When he called to tell her the news that Xena was larger than Pluto, she said, “That’s nice, dear. Can you stop by the store and pick up a loaf of bread on your way home tonight?”

Mr. Brown estimates that there could be as many as fifty bodies out there that are big enough and “round” enough to be considered a planet. (Potato-shaped rocks need not apply for planet status.) Science textbooks are soon to be re-written on a scale that hasn’t been seen in a generation.

Rather than a tightly defined list of exactly nine planets, it now seems that the rocks and balls of gas that orbit our sun exist in somewhat of a continuous spectrum of sizes, shapes, and characteristics. Perhaps there is no limit to the variety of stuff that is out there. Things seem to be a lot more complicated than we first suspected.

For his efforts, Michael Brown was honored by Time Magazine, having been included on its list of “100 Influential People of 2006”. Good for him. I’m not a big fan of the magazine, but if they would ever like to recognize my superior blogging skills by including me on a similar list, I wouldn’t turn them down.

1 comment:

Pastordeshon said...

Hey, Pluto just got fired from being a planet.